Star Artists Curate Revelatory Survey of British History at London’s Hayward Gallery

"History is Now" is exactly the kind of show we need more of.

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Chris Killip, Youth, Jarrow (1976)
© the artist
Nigel Henderson, Head of a Man (1959–1966)
© Estate of Nigel Henderson & the Mayor Gallery, London. Courtesy Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre
Gilbert and George, World of Gilbert and George (1981)
© the artists
Hayley Newman, You Blew My Mind (1998)
© the artist
Hipgnosis, Winkies (1975)
© Hipgnosis. Photo: Aubrey Powell
Penny Slinger, Perspective (1977)
© the artist. Courtesy Penny Slinger/Riflemaker, London
David Chadwick, A Woman on a Hulme Walkway, Manchester (1976)
© the artist
David Hockney, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (2011)
© David Hockney. Courtesy Annely Juda Fine Art, London

As the publicity for “History is Now” keeps insisting, it’s only three months before the UK general election. And since British politicians don’t seem to have a clue where we’re heading as a country or as a nation, you might as well ask a bunch of artists to look back at where we’ve come from. While politicians foist answers on us in sound-bites, artists have the luxury of spending time asking questions without closing things down too quickly. Maybe we’ll get some ideas on how to vote.

But while artists tend to suggest rather than dictate, it’s not as if these seven (Simon Fujiwara, Roger Hiorns, Hannah Starkey, Richard Wentworth, duo Jane and Louise Wilson, and John Akomfrah) haven’t got a clear take on this place we still—just about—call Britain. Admittedly it’s a fairly downbeat view of a country that just about made it through the twentieth century, drifting rudderless and confused into the twenty-first. But “History is Now” is engaging not just for its historical range, but also for the range of approaches to putting on an exhibition through which to reflect on the history of a nation. With each artist given a separate area, “History is Now” shows how good artists can be at curating shows, if you let them.

So Fujiwara’s section gets things going with a display of artefacts and artworks that suggestively mock Britain’s current culture of homogenised consumer gloss and creativity-as-lifestyle. Fujiwara blames Maggie Thatcher, of course, whose iconic outfit of piped navy blazer and patent leather shoes (actually Meryl Streep’s costume for her role as Thatch’ in The Iron Lady biopic), is set out in a vitrine, next to a big chunk of coal from one of Britain’s last working coal mines—a melancholy nod towards Thatcher’s victory against the miners’ unions in the 80s. The other exhibits hint at a country that has become increasingly narcissistic and paranoid, a prison thematic lurking behind a façade of upbeat design values: a drawing of a prison building by Pablo Bronstein, rendered in Bronstein’s signature timewarped neo-classical style, stands not far away from a table setting from The Clink restaurants, a prisoner rehab charity that offers fine dining inside British prisons. There’s no outside to the conformism of contemporary Britain, then, as you nudge past an off-the-peg glass-and-steel balcony, available for bolting onto shiny urban apartment blocks for tidy creative workers. A colourful David Hockney “iPad drawing” of a romantic country lane at the back seems like a desperate, delusional escape route.

If Fujiwara’s bitter sarcasm is subtle behind the designer daintiness, the Wilson twins’s section brilliantly evokes the political conflict and angst of the 70s and 80s, entirely through artworks, that connect site, architecture, political power, and the human body. So while documentary photography of the Greenham Common anti-nuclear protestors hang next to works by Richard Hamilton, Rita Donagh, and Conrad Atkinson—about what British politicians still euphemistically call the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland—these contrast with body-centred works by Stuart Brisley, Penelope Slinger and Mona Hatoum, as well as material relating to Victor Pasmore’s ill-fated modernist pavilion Apollo (1969)—symbol of a post-war optimism unable to survive the social decay of recession-hit Britain. It looks bleak, but the Wilsons’s section is driven by a sense of how artworks can manifest and endure the experience of conflict, through a poetics of buildings and bodies—of young Catholics shot by British troops on the streets of Belfast (in Atkinson’s Northern Ireland 1968—May Day 1975, 1975-76), or the feminist surrealism of Slinger’s photomontages of her naked body juxtaposed with elements of a regency manor house, or photographs of Brisley’s masochistic actions of physical endurance.

The Wilsons’ dark 70s is counterbalanced by Richard Wentworth’s more exuberant, rambling take on the shift from wartime into the 50s and 60s. Wentworth piles on as much ephemera as artwork, conjuring an image of the post-war Britain shadowed by nuclear confrontation, but optimistic about building a new society. There’s a sober nostalgia to Wentworth’s section, for a time when people Got Things Done and Britain still made things—like a 1953 Pye V4 television set, or, more ominously, a 1965 Bloodhound Mark 2 surface-to-air missile, mounted on the Hayward’s outdoor terrace. In among these, artworks from Barbara Hepworth to Eduardo Paolozzi to Hockney signal the shift in attention from socialist-tinted nation-building to a more ambiguous excitement about the pleasures of peace—of consumerism and individual desire.

That many of these works rarely get seen reminds us that putting the past on show through artworks is a political act, since it’s easy to forget what made a country what it is. Hannah Starkey’s reserved installation draws heavily on the social documentary photography of the 70s and 80s—grimy streets and miserable kids and Eton boys and toffs at the Ascot races—contrasting this with the high-gloss aesthetic of advertising imagery and the sexy commercial semi-nakedness of today, while telling a story of the representation and misrepresentation of women through the decades.

Mining the archive is the privilege of a history show, and John Akomfrah’s video viewing-space section is both erudite and passionate about the history of British artists’ film since the 60s. Fronted by Gilbert & George’s genial 1981 The World of Gilbert and George (why did they stop making films?), Akomfrah’s selection focuses on how artists made film their own, while at the same time refracting the society and the world around them. Hard experimental film such as Malcolm Le Grice’s Whitechurch Down (1972) rubs up against counter-cultural artist Bruce Lacey’s playful family “self-portrait” and the political film-making of Rodriguez King-Dorset’s film about the 1981 Brixton Riots.

Perhaps the most extreme presentation, though, is Roger Hiorns’s section, focussed monomaniacally on a single subject—the ‘mad cow disease’ epidemic which loomed over British public consciousness throughout the mid-90s. Hiorns’s installation mostly consists of a documentary timeline of this weird and frightening aspect of life in 90s Britain—a brain disease affecting increasing numbers of cattle, which appeared to be transitioning to humans who had eaten infected meat. There’s a smattering of mostly cattle-related artworks here—a cow’s head-in-formaldehyde vitrine sculpture by Damien Hirst from 1991, suggestively titled Out of Sight, Out of Mind—but otherwise Hiorns presents an exhaustive information archive of governmental reports, news clippings, scientific reviews, and activist literature on the politicisation of food, as the then-conservative government found itself increasingly embroiled in what was to become the first of many public food panics.

Is it art? Who knows? If you ask an artist to give you a ‘take on Britain,’ then be ready for anything. And yet Hiorns’s wayward approach to his brief does do a remarkable job of highlighting just how much public consciousness has been overtaken by the politics of fear and mistrust. Although the 500,000 human deaths that were wildly predicted at the height of the panic never materialised, and incidence of “vCJD,” the human version of the disease was, even at its peak, a 1 in a million occurrence, the BSE crisis set the seal on popular mistrust of scientists, politicians and governments. Food has become a cultural metaphor for that mistrust—for many visiting the Hayward Gallery, even eating gluten is a cause for anxieties about how it affects the brain, so go figure.

“History is Now” is one of those big, off-kilter idea-shows we need more of. Didactic, poetic, idiosyncratic—there’s more than a day’s worth of rare film to see, and at least another day’s worth of looking and thinking. It might be, as Telegraph critic Alastair Sooke opines with consternation, a show that “risks leaving visitors bewildered, bamboozled, and exhausted.” But if you can’t cope with more than an hour and half of any kind of light cultural entertainment, then maybe you’re better off spending your £12 going to see something at the cinema—I hear Shaun the Sheep Movie is really good, and I’m taking my three-year old daughter to see it next week. She has the same attention-deficit problems with art exhibitions as Sooke.

But for the rest of us, “History is Now” gives us the time, if we’ve got the time, to look back on what got “us” here. And maybe there’s nothing so “British” about any of this: war, hope, rebuilding, recession, social conflict, culture wars, all leading to a moment dominated by a culture of fear on one hand, and a desire to escape into the privatised politics of lifestyle on the other. No answers, just sketches of how the failures of the past have shaped the present. How not to repeat those failures? No politician, or even artist, can tell us.


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